- Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion by Ken Brooks
It is a common trope that the popularity of boxing directly connects to the amount of public interest in the then-current heavyweight champion. That belief leads some boxing loyalists steadfastly to assert that the sport’s present marginalized status in this country derives from the heavyweight crown’s residing in Europe for almost the entire twenty-first century. Along with ignoring a number of other significant factors, that perspective disregards the acclaim heaped on some past European heavyweights. While his success pales in comparison to the later-arriving Lennox Lewis, the subject of Ken Brooks’s Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion also offers a corrective by reminding readers that European heavyweights can be both popular with Americans and generate increased interest in the sport. Brooks’s volume, the first full-length biography of Johansson, offers a compact and breezy narrative of the life of a fighter who was just as interesting outside the ring as he was in it.
Ingemar “Ingo” Johansson emerged from an aimless and troubled background (siring five children by the time he was nineteen, going AWOL from the Swedish Navy) thanks to his love of boxing and possession of a thunderous right hand. At a time when European heavyweights received little respect, Johansson stunned the sports world by knocking out champion Floyd Patterson (which set up a classic trilogy of fights). Handsome and limelight-loving, Johansson parlayed that victory into several years as a famous jet-setting playboy. Despite his lifestyle, Johansson took the sport seriously and garnered acclaim for his fight against the influence of organized crime in boxing. The Swede has never been considered one of the all-time greats (his title reign lasted a scant 356 days), but he is certainly overdue for a serious biography, and Brooks tells the tale well.
Brooks’s volume does, however, suffer from a few issues of varying significance. Some readers will be troubled by the book’s lack of footnotes, but, in Brooks’s defense, his source list includes numerous valuable interviews, and the bibliography is thick (although he frequently refers to the 1960 English-language version of Ingo’s memoirs as Seconds Leave the Ring, rather than the correct Seconds out of the Ring). Of more concern is Brooks’s narrow perspective on the role of race in boxing. While Brooks rightfully notes that the conflation of race and nationalism created a complicated situation in the Johannson–Patterson bouts and devotes a few pages to the issue, he also questionably posits that “in the late 1950s and early 1960s . . . race simply wasn’t part of the national sports conversation” (161). That assertion would have certainly confounded Johannson’s great rival Patterson, who was cautioned by both John F. Kennedy and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Percy Sutton that a loss to Sonny Liston would be a setback for race relations in the United States. Broadening his perspective to contextualize Johansson more within larger social issues would have strengthened Brooks’s monograph, but those seeking information on the Swede’s career will be well served by the present volume. [End Page 101]